The Pirate Flag – Famous Pirate Flags

Pirate flags, also known as Jolly Rogers, have a long and storied history that is intertwined with the history of piracy itself. Of all known pirate flags, the most known and popular was the Jolly Roger, commonly depicted as a black flag with a skull and crossbones on it. The moment it was seen, this flag struck fear into the hearts of their victims and let them know that they were dealing with pirates.

The origins of the Jolly Roger flag are somewhat murky, but it is generally believed that it was first used by pirates in the late 17th century. Most historians believe that it is likely that the flag was inspired by the “death’s head” emblem that was used by privateers during the Elizabethan era. Privateers were essentially government-sanctioned pirates. They were were given “letters of marque” by their governments to attack and plunder enemy ships during times of war.

The death’s head emblem was a way for privateers to show that they were acting under the authority of their government.

The Jolly Roger

The Jolly Roger flag quickly became associated with piracy and was used by many famous pirates, including Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. It was meant to strike fear into the hearts of their victims and let them know that they were dealing with pirates who would show no mercy.

The Well Known Jolly Rogers

Different Uses For Pirate Flags

A lesser known fact to the general public, the flag was also used as a way for pirates to communicate with each other, as different pirate crews often had their own unique versions of the Jolly Roger flag, as well as a range of communication flags.

In addition to the Jolly Roger flag, pirates also used a variety of other flags for different purposes.

Flag SymbolSuggested Meaning
Red Pirate FlagBloody Flag – No Quarter Given – No Mercy
Skull and Bones FlagUsually A Scare Flag implying Death
Bleeding Heart FlagUsed by Blackbeard – A Slow Painful Death
Red Skeleton FlagUsed by Edward Low implying
torment with eventual death
Hourglass Symbol FlagTime is Running Out
Nude Pirate FlagShameless Pirates attacking
Clothed Pirate FlagHere is a Pirate Captain
Lifted Drinking Glass FlagUsually a Toast to Death (or Satan)
Horned Skeleton FlagThe Devil Or Satan
Weapons FlagGet Prepared For Battle

Famous Pirate Flags

“Calico Jack” Rackhams Bloody flag

One such flag was the red flag, which was known as the “bloody flag” or the “no quarter” flag. This flag was used by pirates to signal that they would show no mercy and that they were prepared to fight to the death. The red flag was often used in conjunction with the Jolly Roger, and the two flags were sometimes flown together to signify that the pirates meant business. This design of the Jolly Rogers was often attributed to Jack Rackham, although historians believe his was a much simpler design.

"bloody flag" or the "no quarter" flag

The Death Flag

Another flag that was commonly used by pirates was the black flag with a white skeleton on it. This flag was known as the “death flag” and was used to signal that the pirates were in a state of lawlessness and that they would not hesitate to kill anyone who crossed them. The death flag was often used by pirates who were operating in areas where there was little or no law enforcement, as it helped to intimidate local populations and keep them in line. It was famously adopted by the Flying Gang, the Pirates Of Nassau.

Blackbeard’s Bleeding Heart Flag

Blackbeard used a combination flag, a skeleton with a crown attacking a heart with blood drops. It signified a “slow painful death awaiting” anyone that crossed his path.

Blackbeards Pirate Flag

Francis Spriggs / Edward Low Flag

It has been theorised that this was the first pirate flag, used by Francis Spriggs. As you can see, it looks nothing like the Calico Jack version of the Jolly Rogers, however it has been said to be one of the first “scary” pirate flags.

Interestingly this flag wasn’t Spriggs own design, instead it was inherited by him from Edward Low, who used it before him, and was one of his prior sailing partners.

Pirate Red Skeleton Edward Low Flag

Captain Emanuel Wynn’s Pirate Flag

Most sources attribute Emanuel Wynn as the absolute first person to fly the Jolly Rogers Pirate flag. it is the closest flag to the modern known Jolly Rogers design, a combination of the Death’s Head and the Hourglass.

Captain Emanuel Wynn’s Flag

Stede Bonnets Pirate Flag

Most people describe Bonnet‘s flag as a white skull above a horizontal long bone between a heart and a dagger, all on black.

Although this flag is often attribute to him in most modern pirate lore, the fact is that there are no period sources proving that he flew this specific flag. Its provenance is attributed to a manuscript donated to Britain’s National Maritime Museum.

Pirate Flag of Stede Bonnet

Christopher Moody’s Flag

One of the most graphic pirate flags out there, Moody’s flag was a perfect representation of his personality – bloodthirsty. He uses the red for his background, making this a “bloody flag” meaning no quarter given. He then decides to favor gold to represent the hourglass and skull and bones. The Hourglass depicts “time is ticking” (for his enemies).

He then adds a hand holding a dagger to make it clear -he takes no prisoners.

The most Chilling Pirate Flag

Henry Long Ben Avery

Its amazing that a pirate whose career supposedly only lasted two years is often referred to as the King Of Pirates. We suppose this has something to do with the fact Avery managed to get away with the largest Pirate Haul known to date, and deciding to retire is probably a good choice. He and his crew had enough loot to last several lifetimes.

His flag was a version of the Jolly Roger, with the famous Pirate Bandana.

Pirate Henry Avery Black Flag

Bartholomew Roberts Pirate Flags

Avery might be the most profitable pirate, but Bartholomew was probably one of the most successful pirates of his time.

His first flag was a death toast with a skeleton and a pirate. However he came under pursuit by ships from Barbados and from Martinique. After which he drew up his second ABH AMH Flag. ABH stood for A Barbadian’s Head and AMH stood for A Martiniquian’s Head. Relatively clear aggression.

death toast with a skeleton and a pirate
Pirate Bartholomew Roberts ABH AMH Black Bart Flag

In addition to these flags, pirates also used a variety of other symbols and insignia to identify themselves. These included skull and crossbones tattoos, earrings, and other types of jewelry. Pirates were known for their distinctive appearance and often went to great lengths to make themselves look as menacing as possible.

Despite their fearsome reputation, pirates were not always successful in their endeavors. Many pirates were captured and brought to justice by the navies of the countries they preyed upon. In the early 18th century, the British navy in particular was successful in hunting down and capturing many pirates, and by the mid-18th century, piracy had largely been brought under control.

Pirate Flags Today

Today, pirate flags are still used as symbols of piracy and lawlessness, but they have largely lost their original meaning. They are now often used as symbols of rebellion and nonconformity, and are commonly associated with punk and counterculture movements. Despite this, the Jolly Roger flag and other pirate flags continue to hold a fascination for many people, and they continue to be a popular symbol of the romanticized image of the pirate life.